drug abuse - childhood trauma

PTSD Awareness Day: Drug Abuse and Childhood Trauma

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is often associated with members of the military who experience it after combat; however, the anxiety disorder can affect anyone who has been through a traumatic event. Youth and adults alike can be impacted by the stress and fear. It’s important to understand the connection between drug abuse and childhood trauma, particularly as PTSD Awareness Day approaches.

PTSD Awareness

June 27 is PTSD Awareness Day, established in honor of a National Guard member who took his own life after serving two tours of duty in Iraq. Staff Sergeant Joe Biel, whose birthday was June 27, suffered from PTSD and committed suicide after returning home to North Dakota.

The stress disorder can develop in some people after they experience or witness a traumatic event. PTSD can also develop as a result of an ongoing experience, such as abuse or neglect. The disorder, which can also originate in childhood trauma, can result in anger, irritability, sleep problems, flashbacks or nightmares, intense reactions to reminders of the trauma, and substance use issues. While some people can recover more quickly, other may take years to fully heal.

Childhood Trauma and PTSD

When a child experiences a stressful event, they may recover quickly and not feel any long-term effects. Children who experience severe stress, though, such as from violence, abuse, or even the death of a close family member, may develop PTSD from the trauma. Witnessing an event can also cause the anxiety disorder to develop. The child may then develop symptoms that begin to interfere with their daily activities and relationships.

Research has shown that between 3% and 15% of girls and 1% to 6% of boys develop PTSD after they’ve experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. The trauma can affect how the child’s brain develops, which could have lifelong consequences. The more adverse childhood experiences a person has, the higher the risk of developing health issues later in life, both physically and mentally.

Drug Abuse and Childhood Trauma

Among the consequences of unresolved childhood trauma is a tendency to develop substance use problems. Studies have revealed that many people who have experienced child abuse, as well as other events such as violent attacks or natural disasters, turn to drugs or alcohol to help them deal with their emotional pain. They may experience frightening memories, anxiety, and a sense of terror, particularly when encountering people or places that remind them of the trauma.

One study found that adolescents who have been sexually assaulted are 4.5 times more likely to abuse or become dependent on alcohol, 4 times more likely to abuse or become dependent on marijuana, and 9 times more likely to abuse or become dependent on drugs. Adolescents who develop PTSD are 4 times more likely to abuse or become dependent on alcohol, 6 times more likely to abuse or become dependent on marijuana, and 9 times more likely to abuse or become dependent on drugs.

Another study observed high levels of traumatic childhood experiences in people with substance use disorders. Of the adults addicted to opioids who participated in the research, 80.5% reported that they had experienced at least one type of childhood trauma. The consequences of childhood abuse in the study participants included anxiety, conduct disorder, depression, and PTSD.

A Vicious Cycle

Just as people who experienced trauma are more likely to develop issues with alcohol or drug use, people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol are more likely to experience traumatic events. These individuals can find themselves in a vicious cycle. Their exposure to trauma has resulted in their drug or alcohol abuse, but their substance use results in new traumatic events or experiences, which in turn worsens their substance use. This cycle can be devastating to the individual as well as to their friends and family members.


When someone you care about is struggling with PTSD resulting from a childhood trauma and is now experiencing drug abuse, you can take steps to help stop their vicious cycle of trauma and substance use. The intervention team at Whitman Recovery Service is here to help. We work with you to help your loved get the treatment they need to start on the road to recovery from a substance use disorder. Please call (210) 291-0278 if you or someone you care about is struggling with addiction or mental illness. Our team has the expertise to help your family begin the journey of recovery.